Japanese hostages took different routes to Syrian war zone

Japanese hostages held by Islamic State militants appear on a television screen in an electronics store in Tokyo on Jan. 20.
(Shizuo Kambayashi / Associated Press)

One is an independent journalist who traveled to the Middle East apparently in pursuit of his next big story. The other is seemingly a man adrift, on a quest for a new life after becoming homeless in Japan.

The two Japanese men threatened with death by Islamic State militants this week, identified by their captors as Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa, could scarcely have had more different reasons for venturing into one of the world’s most dangerous war zones. But their lives intersected in Syria. Now they find their fates inextricably linked.

According to the website for his company, Independent Press, Goto was born in 1967 in the city of Sendai on Japan’s eastern coast and set up his own publishing outfit in 1996.

He appeared drawn to tough subjects including war, poverty, AIDS, education for children and refugees. Among his credits, according to his website, were works for major news programs in Japan including documentaries for national broadcaster NHK.

The war in Syria began to occupy his attention in 2013, according to blog items on his website, and he traveled there in 2014, posting short clips on YouTube near the embattled northern city of Kobani. But he appeared to be without a steady outlet for his work. His last posts on Twitter are from October.


Yukawa, meanwhile, appeared to have journeyed to the conflict zone after a period of personal and financial crisis. Recounting what appeared to be years of misfortune, he wrote in a post dated Nov. 9, 2013, that he had “lost everything in 2005” and “wanted to die from despair but couldn’t.”


For the Record

Jan 20, 7:54 p.m.: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that on his personal blog Haruna Yukawa had said he had changed his name from Yoshiko Kawashima and had engaged in cross-dressing. On his blog, Yukawa said that in a previous life he was a woman named Yoshiko Kawashima who engaged in cross-dressing.


In a blog post from November 2013, he wrote that he had been homeless for a month, with nothing to eat and no place to bathe in the heat of August, though he did have a car.

“I was hungry everyday,” he wrote, though he did not specify what year he was referring to. He also divulged that he liked Denzel Washington, Katy Perry and Rihanna.

Before his recent misfortunes, Yukawa had run a military surplus store selling helmets, belts and other equipment but the business faltered in 2005, according to a Reuters report that quoted his father.

His current Facebook page identifies him as “chief executive officer of a private military company,” though there is no proof that he actually did such work.

Goto crossed paths with Yukawa in the Middle East in the spring of 2014, he told Reuters news service before his capture, and described him as a gentle man.

That’s at odds with the pictures on Yukawa’s Facebook page, including a posting from June 29, 2014, in which he is seen posing in front of a Humvee with the comments: “Front line of Iraq disintegration crisis 2014!” and “In Iraq, Kirkuk.”

A video posted July 11, 2014, apparently from Aleppo, Syria, shows Yukawa with an AK-47, firing off dozens of rounds.

His last post, dated July 21, 2014, said: “Again, returning to the war zone.”

“I can’t write where I’m going,” he said. “This could be the most dangerous place I’ve been to. … I hope to video record myself in many battle scenes on this trip.”

Times staff writer Makinen reported from Beijing and special correspondent Nagano from Tokyo.